Talent that’s in the jeans

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Forget oils or acrylics, Ian Berry tells Sarah Freeman why old pairs of jeans are the perfect material for a work of art.

In Ian Berry’s studio there are all the usual things you’d expect to see in an contemporary artist’s workplace.

There’s the giant canvases, the spray paint and the pencils scattered in between pots of glue. However, dominating the scene are jeans. Piles and piles of denim that at some point will be turned into works of art. Berry, originally from Huddersfield, is obsessed with the stuff, so much so that he’s adopted the tradename Denimu.

“I had a bit of an epiphany on a trip back to the family home,” says Ian, who is now based in Sweden. “My mum was clearing out all my old clothes and there was a big pile of jeans. There’s something about an old pair of jeans that really brings back memories and a sense of being attached to them more than any other item of clothing. I didn’t want to part with them and when I saw all the different colours together the penny dropped.”

Having studied graphic design at Huddersfield University, Ian began experimenting with denim canvases in his spare time while working as an art director in an advertising agency.

“The day job was okay, but it was never what I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to be stuck in an office for the next 40 years. I worried for a while that because I didn’t have any formal training as an artist it might be a hindrance. I was stepping into a whole new area, but I gradually realised that what counts is what you put on a wall, not what qualifications you have on paper.”

When he was made redundant from his full-time job, Ian knew he had two choices. He could find another position within advertising, a move he knew he would eventually regret, or he could seize the opportunity and try to make a go of his art.

“Everything just fell into place at the right time,” he says. “It did feel like stepping into the unknown, but you don’t get that many chances in life to follow your dream.”

In the early days Ian focused on creating portraits of instantly recognisable icons like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Each stylised portrait in a palette of varying shades of blue made a big impact, but as Ian perfected his technique he turned to more detailed street scenes. His portfolio now includes a number of snapshots of London from Piccadilly Circus to Camden Town and Portobello Market as well as a collection celebrating the British pub.

Creating the work is a painstaking process. While Ian, who was recently tipped as one of the 30 artists under 30 to watch by Art Business News, is now the proud owner of a few tonnes of denim ranging from classic indigo to the ultimate 80s snow wash, with each canvas made up of hundreds of individual, hand-cut pieces, there are no quick shortcuts. Each piece can take weeks to create, with Ian often working 12 hours a day.

Still, his investment of time and energy seems to be paying off. He held his latest exhibition just before Christmas and even before the doors had opened every single work had been sold.

“I have been amazed by the response,” he says.

“A lot of people have come up to me and admitted they don’t get traditional art or feel somehow uncomfortable wandering round a big gallery, but that they really like the work.

“That I think says a lot about the material. Denim cuts across classes, it always has. It’s worn by everyone from celebrities to manual workers. Admittedly the price tag may change, but there’s something about a pair of jeans which is universal and I think that translates into the canvases.”

Ian’s denim comes from a mixture of charity and vintage shops and every so often he’ll open his front door and find a kind donation in the shape of a black bin bag full of old jeans.

“Honestly, I get sent jeans from all over the world and then it’s a case of sorting them into colours. No two pairs are ever the same and it’s really the little details, like a piece of stitching or a fold in the material which has been bleached white, which can really make a piece. If there’s a particularly rare shade I do try to make sure I ration it.

“Working with textiles is not particularly easy and I lost count a long time ago about the amount of blisters I’ve had, but it’s worth it in the end.

“When people look at photographs of my work it inevitably looks quite flat and two-dimensional, but up close, because of the various layers, there is definitely a sculptural quality to the collection. I like work that takes people by surprise, that makes people take a second and third look.

“For me it’s a labour of love and if it makes other people smile then that’s just great.”

To see more of Ian’s work go to www.denimu.com